Can I talk to you on Background?


MSNBC Meet the Press set

For some time now I have been obsessed with those weird little sets that MSNBC uses for broadcasting outside-the-studio interviews with other journalists, outside pundits, notable experts and the few Trump administration officials who have been able to pull off a Steve-McQueen-style escape from 1600. Of course, I’m referring to the address on Pennsylvania Avenue, not the pre-scientific century. But if the reference fits…

Maybe MSNBC isn’t the only network that puts interview subjects into these oddly staged interview-holding cells. I don’t know for sure because it’s pretty much the only cable news show I watch regularly. I’d watch CNN more if their pundits weren’t a bit too camera-ready and telegenic for my taste. I prefer to get my news from people who resemble my friends more: Chris Hayes always pushing his glasses up on his nose, Rachel with her to-hell-with-traditional-femininity confidence, Lawrence O’Donnell’s crooked little smile, and Ari Melber looking remarkably like every white boy who ever graduated from Garfield High School. 

I do check in with Fox News once in a while just to confirm my sanity relative to theirs and I’m happy to report that I still hold an impressive lead. But there is only so much gloomy news I can consume without going mad, so I prefer to spend my TV-watching time with people who bark their outrage from the same side of the fence as I do. 

Back in the pre-coronavirus days, I always wondered what was up with those eerie and creepily lit—blood red and moody blue—interview rooms and their bizarre backdrops of shadowbox diorama shelves chock full of tchotchkes. There was usually a miniature effigy of the Capitol dome, some odd unidentifiable statuettes, an utterly useless globe that has no countries displayed on it, and a handful of books with no titles on their spines. It’s like Joseph Cornell fell asleep and woke up in Hell. I am not joking when I say that those sets remind me of horror movies. I keep expecting someone wearing a hockey goalie’s mask to sneak up on the pundit in question and strangle him or slash his throat. And depending on who the pundit is, I sometimes kind of root for it.

For the nonce, these rooms have all been shut down and presumably sanitized against the day when the pandemic subsides. But I continue to wonder where they are located. Washington DC? New York City? Elm Street? Perhaps all three.      

Another pre-COVID19 interview setting that has always puzzled me is that corridor just off the House floor where they film interviews with members of Congress. Who selected that site? First of all, the sound quality is awful; the place echoes like a shower stall. And people are always strolling by behind the interview subject. Unless the speaker is pretty damned compelling, those errant wanderers never fail to distract me from whatever is being talked about. I find myself no longer listening as I wonder who the passersby are. Does she belong here or is she a well-disguised terrorist who has jumped the security turnstile? Are those two, deep in jovial conversation back there, simply going about their business or are they sneaking off to a late-afternoon assignation or just trying to take off early from work without being noticed? Whatever the case, they have not succeeded.

For a while, it drove me crazy that the camera set-up for those interviews always managed to cut off the head of the statue of Will Rogers that lounges behind those interviews. It struck me as unforgivably sloppy and unprofessional.

“Move that camera back and pan it up a little,” I used to say to the TV, “because right now it just looks creepy and off-kilter as hell.”

I have since decided that I probably don’t want to add to my pain by looking at what is undoubtedly an expression of cynical amusement on his face as he watches the parade of fools that bloviates by all day in front of him. When we finally return to occupying the outside word, my new fear-fueled fantasy is that the camera operator will pan up and I will catch Will, in all his bronze glory, winking at me. Then I’ll know for sure that my time in quarantine has damaged me beyond repair.

Now that my hobby of scoffing at or being terrified by professional backdrops is over, at least until the quarantine is lifted, I’ve realized that this new situation presents an opportunity to indulge in some harmless and time-killing voyeurism because all the news interviews are broadcast from people’s basements, dining rooms, dens, or god forbid, bedrooms. And it’s not like they haven’t tacitly invited us in. So, to get you started on your own adventures in covert home scrutiny, here are a couple of examples of what I’ve found so far:

Jon Meacham
  • Presidential historian John Meacham is always handsomely set off by a wall of books, all in apparently excellent condition and all beautifully organized. The sight of it gives me a bad case of slattern shame combined with crippling biblio-envy.
  • Ron Klain’s home backdrop is filled with an interesting assortment of stuff that includes some books, some art, an eerily oversized shelf clock, and a framed T-shirt covered with signatures that I can’t make out. And not from lack of trying. I can’t decide whether it’s sports memorabilia or a souvenir of his time in the Obama administration.
  • Democratic Congressman Ami Bera, who represents California’s 7th district, has been interviewed fairly often because he used to be the chief medical officer of Sacramento County, which means that I’ve had several opportunities to ponder the amazing sculpture on the wall in his house. It’s a piece of metal tubing bent into a kind of Escherish loop that’s festooned with little figurines, some right side up, some upside down, blithely defying gravity. If I could only see it close up, I might be able to decide whether or not I like it. For the moment, it remains a tantalizing mystery.
  • Recent interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates remain as incisive as ever although his domestic environment is difficult to parse. Sitting in front of his computer at home, he comes across as taller and greater in moral stature than most of the rest of us. But I don’t think that’s an optical illusion; I think that’s just a fact.

For now, until we can reclaim the privacy of our homes and leave the video recording to the professionals, there are a couple of things you might want to consider, whether you’re being interviewed by cable news or just attending your bazillionth zoom meeting. 

The first is, before you sit down and turn on that camera, turn around and make sure that there is nothing behind you that doesn’t bear close inspection. Or even better, salt your background décor with something just a little bit off, something that might give an especially attentive viewer a case of the creeps. Because the second is, in a time of quarantine, you gotta take your fun where you can find it.

Kathy Cain
Kathy Cain
Kathleen Cain began her career in Seattle writing and producing documentaries and talk shows for television and radio. She hosted a two-hour interview program on the notorious KRAB FM, was a contributing editor for late, great Seattle Weekly, and a writer/creative director at the legendary Heckler Associates for many years before starting her own communications consulting firm, Cain Creative.


  1. Kathy — thanks for this commentary. Have you noticed that when you are showing yourself on Zoom you can establish your own background with any photo you have available?

    • Yes, I have noticed that. But I have also noticed during Zoom meetings that those photo backgrounds can do weird things to people’s heads. Especially when they move or turn their heads, there is a kind of distortion that will happen. In some cases, it makes people’s ears appear to flap like Dumbo or parts of their face will become one with the background for a moment. Is there some way to prevent that?

  2. Congressfolk have what they call a Hero Wall, where they hang bad photos of the Eminence with Some Other Eminence, along with plaques and official Eagle Scout diploma. Most of the TV types have variations of this, really displays of Power. (I always look for books written by the speaker back there amid the unread worthy books.) TV news sets are also redolent with power symbols (Space Needle, Capitol Dome, Boston skyscrapers, St. Louis Arch). And the host is meant to resemble a captain on a space ship, throwing cues to lesser lights and chopping off banal blabbing. The other thing about local TV News is that the cast of characters is meant to resemble the typical family: Sonorous Dad, Perky Mom, Dorky Weatherman, Cutup Sports Guy. And the formula never changes.


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